The illness, with pneumonia-like symptoms and having no known cause, was first detected in Wuhan, China and first reported to the WHO Country Office in China on 31 December 2019. The outbreak was then declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020. On 11 February the World Health Organization announced that the official name would be COVID-19, a shortened version of coronavirus disease 2019.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) originates from a virus family associated with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome(SARS) and the common cold. Researchers say that the coronavirus originates from animals like bats and snakes and spreads to humans. The virus appears to have jumped into the human biome at an exotic meat market in Wuhan, China, where delicacies like bats and snakes were sold to the public. The symptoms are very similar to those of cold and flu-like breathing problems, excess coughing, high fever. It has quickly spread across 100+ countries and territories. There have already been more than 140,000 cases worldwide with the death toll totaling more than five thousand.
Government Turns to Tech
With the skyrocketing number of confirmed cases, the Chinese government has decided to team up with tech companies to create products to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. President Xi Jinping has called on the country’s tech sector to help battle the epidemic. Several companies have come forward with technological support to doctors, nurses, and other medical officials. 5G equipment and services were provided to the newly constructed Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan by the companies namely China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom, and Huawei.
Secondly, money, goods, and services have been contributed to health care providers and victims. Over 2.575 billion yuan has been donated by tech companies. Alibaba set up a 1 billion yuan special fund for medical equipment. A 300 million yuan prevention and control fund were established by Tencent. Baidu with a 300 million yuan drug R&D fund and Ant Financial’s established fund have helped provide benefits to medical workers who contract the virus (100,000 yuan) and also to the families of medical workers who die from it (500,000 yuan). companies like Xiaomi and 360 Security have shipped masks and testing kits to Wuhan. Didi, a transportation company, has given free taxi services for medical staff in Wuhan.
Robots To The Rescue
Image Credit: Wired
Coronavirus is highly infectious and difficult to contain, making it more secure for some human-to-human interactions to be done remotely. Both in hospitals and out in the public, remote correspondence will help patients abstain from transmitting the illness. This makes way for robots and other automated technologies. To ensure the least individual-to-individual contact, artificial intelligence-powered devices equipped with thermometers and cameras are taking patients’ vitals and also assisting doctors to determine individuals to have the sickness from a safer distance. Robots are being programmed to automatically deliver cooked food and medication to patients’ bedsides. Some of them are being utilized to sanitize clinic rooms and even planes, talk with isolated people and keep a record of vital information.
Temi Robot. Image Credit: VentureBeat
Temi robot is one such robot that was created by an Israeli organization. Temi is three feet tall with a touchscreen, Amazon’s Alexa innovation, a built-in sound system, a plate for charging telephones and an autonomous navigation system that permits it to move around all alone while staying away from obstructions. It is operational in various divisions, among them healthcare, hospitality, enterprises, retail, and education. To date, many Temi robots have been deployed for work in hospitals, air terminals, and elderly-care homes. They are being put to use in workplaces all through China to check arriving employees for fever, one of the most unmistakable manifestations of COVID-19. In case of a medical problem, Temi guides the worker to a doctor’s office to prevent the spreading of the disease.
UVD Robot. Image Credit: The Robot Report
UVD Robots, developed by a Danish company, is used to disinfect by emitting ultraviolet light throughout an area, killing viruses and bacteria, including the coronavirus. The robots are remotely controlled by a device operated by a health worker. More than 2,000 hospitals were asked to ensure effective disinfection, protecting both their patients and staff. This technology, where the virus’ DNA breaks down, has already proven effective on the SARS and MERS virus, which bear similarities to corona.
HOLABOT by Pudu Technology. Image Credit: Business Wire
Pudu Technology, based in Shenzhen, usually makes robots for the catering industry and has installed its machines in more than 40 hospitals around the country to help medical staff. Qianxi Robotic Catering developed the culinary gadget and donated them to the epicenter city where overworked workers do not have much time and few options to chow down on. The company said the pink mechanical contraptions at each vending station can feed at least 120 people each hour for the entire day. This system not only prepares proper meals but also the catering robots being fully automated and the food production process having no human contact, lowers the risk of infection.
Drones- The Flying Robots
Image Credit: PR Newswire
Drones are deployed to patrol public places, spray disinfectant, and conduct thermal imaging. They are also used to track whether people are traveling outside without wearing face masks or violating other quarantine rules. Xiaoyunfei, from Mongolia, educated villagers to wear masks amidst the coronavirus outbreak using drones. His creative method of persuasion soon became a trend in other cities across China. The drones have been hovering above people in rural areas and urban streets broadcasting messages sent in real-time by a human, asking them to put on a mask or stay indoors.
MicroMultiCopter, in Shenzhen, is making use of drones to transport medical samples and conduct thermal imaging. Drones have been deployed in Shanghai to supervise traffic while in Wuhan they provided much needed night light for the immediate hospital construction.
At present, the countries of the world are in a tense period of national crisis. To respond to the needs of pandemic prevention and control, Terra Drone group company is actively contacting local hospitals to support pandemic prevention with practical actions and cooperate with the government in rapid delivery of medicines and protection materials like masks through the deployment of its drone transportation network. Self-driving vehicles are even delivering medicines and other supplies to medical workers in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The 3 Color-Coded System
A bold mass experiment has begun in using data to regulate citizens’ lives, requiring them to use software to be allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces after China encouraged people to return to work. Alibaba and Tencent are tech giants that developed such software. A color-coded system was developed to classify people based on their health conditions and travel history into three categories- green, yellow and red. This lets guards at train stations and other checkpoints know who to let through. China’s capital city has also joined this national initiative of assigning colored QR codes to the residents, despite concerns of mislabelling and privacy leaks.
The three colored QR code system was launched in Hangzhou, on 11th February, through Alipay by Ant Financial, a sister company of the e-commerce giant Alibaba. It assigns users one of three colored QR codes — green, yellow and red. A green QR code shows the user is not under quarantine and can move around the city freely and is allowed at checkpoints. Those with yellow codes need to quarantine themselves at home while the red codes are assigned to those who need to undergo supervised quarantine. The color codes are refreshed daily at midnight.
The Green Colour QR code. Image Credit: New York Times
According to a Chinese state media outlet, about 100 cities across the country have adopted this system within a week. In Beijing, the codes can be accessed both through Alipay and Tencent’s ubiquitous app WeChat. Users can get their codes by entering their name, national identity number and registering with facial recognition. The Alipay Health Code’s creators say it uses big data to draw automated conclusions about whether someone is contagion risk. The system has helped workers in train stations and outside residential buildings in keeping a record of people’s names, national ID numbers, contact information and details about recent travel. Some public transportation can be accessed only after registering phone numbers with an app.
The Era of Data Analysis and Artificial Intelligence
The rapid emergence and outbreak of the novel coronavirus have alarmed people around the globe. With the possibility of a global pandemic being real, people can at least take some solace in the fact that public health officials have an array of powerful data collection at their disposal. The public health officials around the world have an assemblage of data analytic tools to battle this outbreak, including tracking where 2019-nCoV has already spread, how it’s spreading, and forecasting where it’s going to affect next.
While organizations like WHO and the UN are releasing funds to facilitate research, many are looking towards AI as rays of hope to decelerate the crisis.
The coronavirus pandemic has also led to the integration of facial recognition with thermal imaging. This type of scanning is being used to sense whether people might have elevated temperatures, which may demonstrate whether they’ve been tainted with the coronavirus and further help in verifying their identity. SenseTime, an artificial intelligence company, is selling thermal imaging-empowered facial recognition, and so is Sunell, another China-based video surveillance organization. SenseTime has also developed an algorithm that can detect people not wearing masks in public even after the Chinese authorities repeatedly encouraging everyone to wear masks when outdoors and in public places with huge gatherings.
Facial Recognition products are being used to help spot people with elevated body temperatures. Image Credit: Fortune
SenseTime, one of the largest AI firm in China, has rolled out a facial-recognition product that incorporates thermal imaging cameras to help spot people with elevated body temperatures, and send pop-up alerts to users of the software. With the additional help of the mask algorithm, it can detect those who are not wearing masks and also identify people with high accuracy even when they are wearing masks. A system has been developed by Baidu in Beijing which screens travelers at the Qinghe railway station using infrared and face detection technology and automatically takes a picture of each person’s face. A body temperature of 37.3 degrees Celsius (99 degrees Fahrenheit) gives an alarm and a secondary check is carried out by the station staff.
Chinese technology giant Alibaba recently claims to have developed an AI system for diagnosing the COVID-19 in just 20s with 96% accuracy by analyzing CT scans of patients’ chests. Its founder Jack Ma has also announced that his foundation will be donating $2.15 million to accelerate the development of a coronavirus vaccine. The foundation has signed an agreement with the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Australia to support the research and development of treatment options for the Covid-19 virus.
Baidu’s AI team has released a tool named LinearFold to reduce the prediction time of 2019-nCoV from 55 minutes to 27 seconds. This cut down of prediction time is crucial for doing a detailed study of the virus, understanding it and catalyzing the discovery of the vaccine. Doctors in China have been given a new powerful tool called infravision to help them quickly diagnose potential coronavirus sufferers. This is an AI-based software that can quickly highlight the potential problems in cases in record time. It can identify typical signs or partial signs of COVID-19 in suspected patients.
“In the battle against Covid-19, emerging technologies have stood out by making immense contributions in an unexpected, creative and amazingly responsive way,” said Lu Chuanying, a senior official at Shanghai-based Global Cyberspace Governance.
The government and tech together have made tremendous efforts in its Artificial Intelligence (AI) sector by enabling technology to combat COVID-19. With all the efforts to speed up diagnosis, minimize human-to-human contact but also keeping in my the patients’ health and hygiene, spreading awareness about the cause of the disease and protection from it, technology has proved to be a boon to China in these hours of crisis.
Despite being very efficient as a supporting technology for controlling COVID-19, technical and ethical risks on privacy, bias, safety, and accountability have emerged. All the new surveillance tools necessary during this outbreak have however prompted concerns about privacy. The 3 color-coded system and many other health apps, public transportation apps require users to register with their name, national identification number, and phone number. There is little transparency on how the government plans to cross-check the data and also keep it safe. Other technologies like facial recognition, although beneficial during this period, blatantly invades one’s privacy and so release of the information should be regulated accordingly. With the growing popularity of the apps, there’s the added fear that it could aggravate paranoia and lead to discrimination against coronavirus patients.
Infringement of Privacy was already becoming a thing in China. An outbreak like this will only facilitate that process. However, focusing on the bright side, technology has proved to be the knight in shining armor in this battle against COVID-19.
Written by:- Poulomi Gope